Monthly Archives: July 2012

Batman, Dickens, and Resurrection

“It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.”

These are the iconic last words we hear from Sydney Carton before he is sacrificially guillotined in Charles Dickens’ classic, A Tale of Two Cities — a book which ends up being a rather important inspiration for Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises. [Read no further if you haven’t seen the film!] The Carton quote is repeated in Rises near the end, as are other lines that reference sections of Carton’s last monologue (“I see the lives for which I lay down my life, peaceful, useful, prosperous and happy…”).

The Tale of Two Cities parallels don’t stop there, however. The whole film seems infused with the social upheaval, revolutionary unsettledness, and literary elegance of Dickens’ novel, as well as its themes of death, resurrection, and the desire to rebuild (or reboot, perhaps) from amidst destruction and ashes.

There is an uneasy peace at the opening of Rises. One could say (to quote the famous opening line of Tale) that it was “the best of times, it was the worst of times.” Crime is low, Batman is unnecessary, and the wealthy galas go on at Wayne Manor. But as the aristocrats enjoy their comfort, the growing “other half” (or “99%” if you want to go with the Occupy language) is increasingly discontented. An army grows underground–led by a coalition of terrorists (Bane), corrupt billionaires, and involving everyday criminals and malcontents (like the “adaptable” Catwoman). As Selina Kyle (Catwoman) tells Bruce Wayne: “A storm is coming, Mr. Wayne. You and your friends better batten down the hatches. Because when it hits, you’re all going to wonder how you thought you could live so large, and leave so little for the rest of us.”

This line has been read by some to be the film’s most resonant “Occupy” line, reflecting the growing tension and disparity between the haves and have-nots. And indeed it does reflect that. But the “storm” of class warfare is also an allusion to the French Revolution, the setting of Tale and perhaps western civilization’s most harrowing collision of have and have-nots. The third section of Tale, after all, is called “The Track of a Storm.” It’s a testament to the savvy of Christopher and Jonathan Nolan (the film’s screenwriters, who wrote the script for Rises years before “Occupy” movement became a thing) that they identified Dickens’ Tale as a timeless and yet timely inspiration for the epic conclusion of their trilogy, which has always been as much about classic hero myths as about the specific context (terrorism, media, corporate greed, worrisome surveillance trends, etc.) of our unsettled day-and-age.

The Nolans weave references to Tale into their film in various ways. Sequences of sentencing “hearings” at populist tribunals (“exile or execution”) and images of “1%” aristocrats being dragged out of their posh mansions by the mob are clearly nods to the revolutionary tribunals and general chaos of the French Revolution’s “Reign of Terror.” A final “war” scene between the cops and occupiers evokes 18th century battle tactics. The film even gives a nod (perhaps unintended) to the French Revolution by casting a French actress (Marion Cotillard) as one of the most significant new characters.

But perhaps the most important theme from Tale that informs Rises is the concept of rebirth or resurrection. [Major spoilers ahead!] We see this even in the film’s title: The Dark Knight Rises. Everything in the film speaks to the belief or desire for rebirth. Just as the French revolutionaries sought to totally destroy the old regime and rebuild a new society, so too do the villains in Rises seek the destruction of Gotham and the birth of a new order. Catwoman seeks a reboot of her own life–where her past is erased and her future is a chance to make something better (and less criminal?) of herself. The very idea of cats and Catwoman–nine lives–implies second (and third and fourth, etc.) chances. Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s John Blake also experiences something of a rebirth in his identity and purpose–though I will say absolutely no more about that ;)

And then there’s Batman himself, whose arc in the film is a series of “deaths” and “rebirths,” from his start as an out-of-commission recluse to his flashy return as Batman, to his broken-back defeat by Bane and subsequent imprisonment in the prison “pit,” to his rise out of the darkness and defeat of evil, to his final act of sacrifice and, well, that last scene.

As dark as the film is, it presents such a faith in resurrection. The light above the pit speaks to the hope which animates one’s purpose even in the midst of despair.  In contrast to Bane, who sees hope as a liability that only adds to one’s despair, John Blake and Batman see it as the only thing that can answer fear and evil. When Blake is caring after the orphans and it looks as though Gotham will be soon destroyed by the bomb, he insists on keeping the boys’ spirits up, unwilling to let them die thinking there is no hope.

Without hope–without the possibility for redemption and renewal–what would keep any of us going? Hope is what helps any of us deal with the ugly realities of day-to-day life. It’s what we need to move through the horrors and traumas of planes going into buildings, fires destroying our livelihoods, babies dying in the womb, deranged killers opening fire on crowds of moviegoers.

Life is such a series of frights, disappointments, failures, imprisonments (physically, emotionally, spiritually). It’d be unlivable without that hope of beginning again, that hope of resurrection and renewal, that Phoenix-like desire to rise out of the shackled prison pit our own fear, despair and brokenness.

The impulse toward resurrection is grand motif of human existence: it’s the arc of all creation and everyone within it, groaning and aching for the dawn of better days, when all is put to rights and evil is subdued. The hope of resurrection is the thing Sydney Carton takes refuge in before his own death in A Tale of Two Cities, as he rests in the truth of John 11:25-26:

“I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die.”

That’s the hope we have. He rose, and in Him we can all rise. The Dark Knight Rises stirs us so because it taps into that hope, as does Dickens (more directly, perhaps) in A Tale of Two Cities. It’s a hope our world needs.

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Best of the Blog’s First Five Years

I started this blog on July 18, 2007, five years ago on Wednesday. It’s been a great five years of blogging. 551 posts, thousands of comments, and countless hundreds of hours of writing later, and I’m happy to say I’ve loved every minute of it. By way of marking the occasion of the fifth anniversary of The Search, I thought I’d look back at some of my favorite and most popular posts. If you’ve been a longtime reader you’ll maybe remember some of them. If you’re a newer reader, here are some old favorites I commend to you:

5 Most Commented

1. Are You a Christian Hipster? (Feb. 7, 2009): This blog post was the first excerpt of Hipster Christianity that I posted on the blog, about a year and a half before the book actually came out. It remains one of my most trafficked and commented-on posts ever.

2. 100 Greatest Worship Songs of All Time (March 14, 2008): I wrote this oldie on a whim and had no idea it would become my all time most trafficked post. I get about 500 views on this post every day, mostly from people googling “worship songs” or “best worship songs” (try it: this blog post is like #3).

3. Best “Christian” Albums of all Time (Oct. 29, 2007): What can I say? Lists about Christian music always elicit plenty of response. This one–my selections for the best “Christian” albums ever–was no different.

4. The Tragedy of (Most) Modern Worship Music (Aug. 26 ,2007): I’m sensing a pattern here. Discussions of worship music has gotten a big response. This post–basically a summary of all my curmudgeonly thoughts about contemporary worship–apparently struck a chord.

5. Sad Times for the Episcopal Church (July 16, 2009): This post, written in response to the latest move by the Episcopal Church in America to affirm LGBT lifestyles, seems almost antiquated given how much farther down this path Episcopals have gone since. In any case, it drew lots of emotional discussion in the comments section.

5 Most Trafficked Posts:

  1. 100 Greatest Worship Songs of All Time
  2. Are You a Christian Hipster?
  3. Types of Hipsters: Part One
  4. Top Ten Comedies of the Year
  5. Best “Christian” Albums of all Time

Beasts of the Southern Wild

Beasts of the Southern Wild was the hit of Sundance 2012, and so it was with great anticipation that I attended a press screening of it a few months back. I’d heard it compared to the Southern Gothic abstractions of pre-sellout David Gordon Green, or even the dreamy lyricism of Terrence Malick. Perhaps my expectations were too high, however, because Beasts did not connect with me at all.

I’ll say this for the film: it’s definitely unique; certainly visionary. Director Benh Zeitlin’s debut is set in a magic-realist environment somewhere between post-Katrina New Orleans and Where the Wild Things Are, and it features a memorable central character in Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis), a 6-year-old girl trying to survive some sort of melting icecaps apocalypse in a town called Bathtub, with her volatile father Wink (Dwight Henry).

But while Beasts succeeds at immersing the audience in a curious, evocative American world–a kind of mishmash between the rundown Americana of Green’s George Washington, the river adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and (cringe) Kevin Costner’s Water World–the film fails to tie its abundance of motifs, allusions, and themes together in a coherent, compelling story.

There are too many ideas going on in this film, and most of them feel dropped in haphazardly. There are notions of global warming hinted at, references to levees and the race/class frictions churned up by Katrina, jabs at bureaucracy and welfare, and all manner of unintelligible voiceover philosophizing (again, hat tip Malick and D.G. Green) like “When all goes quiet behind my eyes, I see everything that made me flying around in invisible pieces.” Then there are the “we’re all just beasts!” themes that riff on Darwin and make commentary on the survival instincts which bind man and animal. Does any of it make sense? Is it meant to? Probably not.

Adding to the confusion is the fact that the film’s sense of reality is intentionally ambiguous: We know the narrative is in some sense from Hushpuppy’s point of view, but it’s unclear whether some or all of it is in her imagination. Which may very well be the point. But regardless, it comes across more as a frustrating mess than a “just enjoy the ride” impressionistic tone poem (which I think it aspires to be).

I loved the world of this film, and the photography and (sometimes) the music. The first ten minutes or so are really superb. And I’ll be darned if Hushpuppy isn’t the most adorably precocious, pint-sized heroine since Abigail Breslin in Little Miss Sunshine.

But as the film goes on it feels more and more contrived, with emotional highs and lows that the film doesn’t earn and  audiences shouldn’t be expected to be moved by. In the end, the film’s utopian, dream-like celebration of Southern culture and a sort of “it takes a village” communitarianism rings somewhat false. Sure, it may be Zeitlin’s goal to offer audiences a hopeful, idealistic vision in the midset of cynical times; but hopeful visions only work if they feel authentic. In the case of Beasts, I agree with Slate critic Dana Stevens that “Zeitlin’s adoring gaze on the Bathtubbers’ chaotic-yet-joyous way of life smacks of anthropological voyeurism: Rousseau’s ‘noble savage’ nonsense all over again, but with crawdads and zydeco.”

Fans of the film may disagree and say I’m reading too much into Beasts–that it’s a film not to be understood but to be experienced. And indeed, I suspect that Zeitlin had an “experience” film in mind here. But I’ve seen (and loved) far more abstract “experience” films about childhood (George WashingtonParanoid Park, Ratcatcher, to name a few) than this, and they worked for me. I think that’s because the most successful “experience” films have as much restraint as they have experimental vision. They don’t try to overstuff the film with ideas, but rather focus on perfecting the tone and letting beautiful sequences and aesthetic brushstrokes lead the way in the creation of a mood.

The problem with Beasts is that it raises too many distracting questions in the viewer’s mind to allow them to be fully present in the experience. The aesthetics are great but not great enough to pull us out of our cognitive impulses to understand what is happening and why. And ultimately, the world is too foreign and whimsical to relate to anyway. Unless you surved Katrina in the Lower Ninth Ward by living in a treehouse trailer. But even then I bet Beasts feels forced.